Baseball is a cruel sport, or at least one prone to shatter your heart into a trillion pieces when you least expect it. Such is the case for the Brewers and their fans, who were dealt a crushing blow on Tuesday night with the loss of defending NL MVP Christian Yelich, who suffered a fractured kneecap on a foul ball and will miss the rest of the season.
There are no two ways about it: Yelich’s injury is a disaster for Milwaukee, which is one of several teams fighting for the second wild-card spot in the NL. Coming off a career year in 2018, the 27-year-old outfielder had somehow found an even higher gear this season, slashing .330/.430/.672 (the latter two figures leading the Senior Circuit) with 44 homers, 97 RBI, 30 steals, a 178 OPS+ and 7.1 bWAR. The best player on the Brewers by far, he’s irreplaceable, particularly with Milwaukee’s lineup already performing worse than last year’s edition. No hitter on the team was within even four Wins Above Replacement of Yelich, who was the biggest thing keeping the Brewers’ already slim playoff hopes alive.
Those odds—27.6% coming into the day, per FanGraphs—will take a massive hit with Yelich gone, even despite Milwaukee suddenly surging after a mediocre August. The Brewers have won five straight games and eight of their last 11, including two straight series wins over the Cubs. What’s more, after this weekend’s upcoming matchup with the first-place Cardinals, it’s all cupcakes for Milwaukee, which won’t face an above-.500 team for the rest of the season. There was room for the Brewers—who, after Tuesday’s win over Miami, trail Chicago by just 1 ½ games for the second wild card—to make up ground and pass their NL Central rivals.
Those hopes, though, rested on Yelich continuing to demolish opposing pitching. Instead, the lineup will have to soldier on with likely some combination of Ben Gamel and rookie Trent Grisham in rightfield—a massive downgrade no matter how you slice it. Nor does it help that, aside from Yelich, the only regulars currently producing in the lineup are Yasmani Grandal and Eric Thames. His injury is also poorly timed given the recent losses of Keston Hiura, who went down with a hamstring strain at the end of August, and Mike Moustakas, who’s been unable to hit for the last week due to a bruised wrist.
Had Yelich’s injury come this time last year, the Brewers likely would have been better equipped to survive it. But the offense has been absent beyond him, thanks to down years from Lorenzo Cain and Travis Shaw (as well as Jesus Aguilar, who was traded away in July). The starting rotation lacks reliability or consistency, relying on back-end guys like Gio Gonzalez, Chase Anderson and Zach Davies amid this playoff push. And a bullpen that was lockdown in 2018 has been shaky, with Josh Hader regressing and his supporting cast failing to produce. Few teams, in other words, were as reliant on one man as the Brewers were on Yelich. With him gone, it’s hard to see how they stay afloat.
Then again, the wild-card race is a mess. The Cubs recently lost their own MVP in Javy Baez, who is out indefinitely with a broken thumb. The Phillies have no pitching to speak of beyond Aaron Nola. The Mets can’t hold leads to save their lives. The Diamondbacks have won 11 of their last 15 to crawl into the conversation, but with Zack Greinke gone and with bullpen issues of their own, it’s hard to see them either staying in the race or making any noise should they improbably claim the second spot. With this motley assortment of flawed teams, there’s still a chance the Brewers could sneak into the wild-card game.
If they did, though, their reward would be a matchup with Max Scherzer and the Nationals, followed by a trip to the Division Series against the juggernaut Dodgers. Those would’ve been tall tasks with Yelich healthy; without him, it’s hard to imagine Milwaukee putting up the firepower necessary to take out either squad.
Beyond how Yelich’s loss affects the playoff race, though (or how the injury kills his chances of repeating as MVP, effectively handing the award to Cody Bellinger), there’s the sheer sadness of seeing one of baseball’s brightest stars have his season cut short. Yelich’s transformation into an all-around superstar has been a fantastic story, and his blend of skills and talents is jaw-dropping. Along with Ronald Acuña, Jr., he's the first player to put up 40 homers and 30 steals in a single season since Alfonso Soriano in 2006, and just one of 10 men ever to do so. There are few players more fun to watch or who offer a more versatile package.
The good news is that, while painful, Yelich’s injury was a total fluke and shouldn’t impact his career going forward. The bad news is that it leaves the baseball world all the poorer. Neither the Brewers nor this season will be the same without Yelich in it.